On Monday, December 2, Christmas came early for Shelia K., of Bella Vista, AR, and Susan S., of Waxahachie, TX, when they received the unique gift of surgery, courtesy of Methodist Hospital for Surgery, orthopedic surgeon specialist, Dr. Kurt Rathjen, and charitable surgical program, Operation Walk USA.
Now in its third year, Operation Walk USA has provided free orthopedic surgery to almost 500 people in the U.S., and they provided both Shelia and Susan with a free knee arthroscopy.
Shelia K. spent her entire life suffering severe knee and leg pain and was first introduced to Dr. Rathjen after he’d replaced her dad’s knees.
“I don’t remember exactly when my first visit with Dr. Rathjen was,” recalled Shelia. “I want to say it was March 2012.” It was her parents who made the introduction and even paid for her initial visit, since Shelia’s physical state had cost her her job and left her without insurance.
“I was born with my hips out of socket, so my muscles and tendons didn’t develop properly,” Shelia explained. “As a kid, my knee would pop out of place. Doctors previously tried to shorten the muscles and insert some pins, and then they went in a few times to clean debris out.
“Right off the bat, Dr. Rathjen took X-Rays, and he asked me how I got up every day and made the decision to stand and walk. I didn’t know how bad they’d gotten, but he told me ‘you have permission to hurt worse than you’ve ever dreamed about.’”
Dr. Rathjen explained that Shelia’s right knee was the worst he’d ever seen, especially in someone her age—she was only 55 at the time—and that, in addition to severe arthritis, she had no cartilage remaining in her knee. After thorough examination, and knowing what Shelia faced without work or insurance, Dr. Rathjen presented her with an opportunity from Operation Walk USA.
“I quizzed him about it, just to make sure I wasn’t part of a lottery, but he reassured me that day, right then, that there would be nobody else who would come in and be worse [physically].” At that time, Dr. Rathjen had already selected his 2012 candidate, but said Shelia would be among his selections for 2013.
While the assurance of surgery the following year gave Shelia hope, she still faced 18 months of coping; but even for this she had Dr. Rathjen’s support. He schedule Shelia to receive regular cortisone shots and provided Tramadol for her pain. For her part, Shelia agreed to do anything Dr. Rathjen requested that might improve her physical condition before surgery so, following his instruction, she succeeded in losing weight and even quit smoking.
Following Shelia’s December surgery, she was admitted to the Remington Medical Resort, a transitional care facility in Richardson, TX, where she spent almost two weeks working through physical therapy.
“He gave me my life back.” She minces no words in trying to explain what the free surgery and after-care have meant for her future. “It’s been incredible. My surgery went perfect.”
Asked about plans for her new-found mobility, Shelia is quick to say that she wants to volunteer with her local Red Cross, which she describes as a very active chapter. Curiously, she then starts to laugh; she reveals that she is a widow who has shied away from new relationships, fearing that she’d be a burden.
“Now that I’m feeling better and feeling good about myself, the Lord may send me my Mr. Right.”
Susan S. also received surgery on December 2, and while her story begins in a very different place, it echoes the same resounding hope of a successful surgical outcome.
“Three or four years ago, the pain started getting unmanageable—it was bone-on-bone and there was nothing left to do except surgery.” After many years as an avid softball and tennis player, Susan had developed advanced arthritis in both knees. She tolerated the condition as long as possible, but when pain forced her into part-time hours at work, she felt the early pangs of desperation.
“I Googled ‘free knee replacement surgery’ but never dreamt there was an organization that did this.”
She was quick to contact Operation Walk USA once she discovered them, but was told she didn’t quite meet their financial criteria. At that time, Susan was faced with a minimum cost of $20,000 for one knee arthroscopy, and the only alternate plan she could conceive to cover such a price tag was to start selling her possessions.
“I’m only 54 and I couldn’t imagine how this was going to be,” she explained. “It was too painful to sit or walk or anything. [My knees] would lock in place and there was constant grinding. You take for granted the things you can do. Feed the dog, grocery shop, work in my garden; I couldn’t do any of them.”
In 2012, when Susan’s pain escalated to the point that she was forced to quit work, she wondered if Operation Walk USA might reconsider her case. She reached out one more time.
“Next thing I knew, [Operation Walk USA] had set me up an appointment with Dr. Rathjen. I thought I was going in for an initial evaluation; I didn’t realize they’d already contacted him and given him the go-ahead to do my surgery.”
After full evaluation of Susan’s condition, Dr. Rathjen told her that both knees needed to be replaced. Then, to her surprise, he told her simply to “pick one.” That’s when she realized she was a candidate.
“Dr. Rathjen is the nicest, most compassionate man I’ve ever met; I could tell he really empathized with my situation and his whole call was to restore my quality of life,” Susan recalls fondly. “It’s a godsend. It’s like you win the knee lottery—you can’t imagine a better gift to be given than a surgeon’s time. They open the doors and say ‘We got the cost, you just focus on getting well.’”
After Dr. Rathjen successfully replaced Susan’s left knee, she set her sights on employing him to replace her right.
“One way or another I’ll get the second one done and I’ll go back to Dr. Rathjen, too.” Following her surgery, Susan spent much of December working with an inpatient physical therapist who came to her home for private sessions. “There’s pain involved for sure, but I could tell the first time I put weight on my knee that the pain wasn’t the same I’d had, it was just the surgery site—I’m a
totally different person now.”
Methodist Hospital for Surgery and Dr. Rathjen have participated in Operation Walk USA since the program’s inaugural year, and once again, the surgeries they provided were a success. Working alongside Dr. Rathjen was the Methodist Hospital for Surgery staff, including two anesthesiologists and an attending physician, who donated their time during these unique procedures.
Both Shelia and Susan received their entire episode of care—consultations, surgery, physical therapy, follow-up—free of charge and their recovery is now well underway. Their joint replacement implants were donated by Smith & Nephew.
“We look forward to continued participation in Operation Walk USA,” said Chris Shoup, Methodist Hospital for Surgery president. “It’s impossible to ignore a call like this, when you know that by participating in the Operation Walk program you’re completely changing and improving the course and outcome of a person’s life. This is our mission and the foundation on which Methodist Hospital for Surgery was formed—it’s our calling, and knowing Dr. Rathjen, I’m confident he feels the same.”
Learn more about Operation Walk USA by visiting www.opwalkusa.com.